Henry Clay's volleyball team is No. 4 in the state in the latest coaches' poll, the highest rating the Blue Devils have ever enjoyed in the regular season.
"We know it's just on paper, but it's still a big pride thing for us," Coach Dale Grupe said. "Especially after everybody kind of wrote us off at the beginning of the season."
Henry Clay graduated big hitters Kate Stromberg and Mikayla Reese off last year's state semifinal team.
"We lost 75 percent of our offense, but people didn't realize these other kids could hit, too, but they just didn't need to last year," Grupe said.
Henry Clay showed its renewed power with a straight-set (25-13, 25-20) victory over No. 17 Lafayette on Monday night.
Leading the way were returning senior stars Emily Stromberg (middle hitter) and Jordan Strickland (setter).
Both players consider the No. 4 ranking a positive.
"It definitely motivates us," Stromberg said, "because we want to live up to it. We've got the same fight and drive we had last year."
Strickland said the high ranking "gets us respect, but it also means other teams are really out to get us."
Against Lafayette, Stromberg teamed with sophomore Elle Barnett, junior Emily McClendon and freshman Ca'Layce Coffey to put the hurt on Lafayette at the net.
Stromberg was especially effective.
"She hits some serious hard ones," Grupe said.
He thinks Strickland, an all-stater last year, is even better this season.
"She's probably stronger because she's really setting up all around. She's definitely thinking out there, keeping all the hitters in the game."
Veteran defenders Natsuki Yamawaki and Ariana Andres have also been consistent contributors for Henry Clay (18-3), whose only in-state loss was to No. 1 Assumption.
Henry Clay played in a tournament in Effingham, Ill., over the weekend and went 3-2, losing to teams from Illinois and Arkansas.
The Devils loved the competition.
"We learned how to play through some adversity," Stromberg said. "We lost (senior blocker) Nicole Jenkins (to injury), but our bench players stepped up."
Lafayette, which hasn't beaten Henry Clay since 2006, gave the Devils a tough way to go in the second set Monday night. Sarah Jenkins and Annie King helped the Generals push to the finish.
"When you're playing a team that good, you've got to go out and compete, and we did the second game," Coach Chris Langston said. "I never questioned the girls' hearts."
Langston doesn't question Henry Clay's ranking, either.
"It's great," he said. "They're getting their reward for all their hard work.
"Dale's been doing this a long time and they deserve being ranked that high. It's really good for Lexington, too."
Grupe, in his 14th season at Henry Clay, likes where his team is now, but he thinks it has lots of room to grow.
"We've progressed really well, but because of the mixture of seniors and younger kids, we know we can still get a lot better."